Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint

JOAN: THE MYSTERIOUS LIFE OF THE HERETIC WHO BECAME A SAINT: Donald Spoto: Harpercollins: Biography: 222 pgs.

A fascinating biography of an equally fascinating figure in history. Donald Spoto, most known for his biographies on pop culture icons like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, turns his considerable talent to describing the life and character of Joan of Arc. He tells of her early life and military career, setting the stage for a suspenseful day-by-day account of the final year of her life which included her trial, conviction, and execution.

I really loved this book. I was not familiar with the facts concerning the life of this strong and courageous young woman. But in just over 200 pages, I became a true believer. Spoto describes a young woman who knew God had given her a mission and no one could cause her to forsake that mission or deny the God who had given it to her. I can highly recommend this book for any reader.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


IRONHAND; Charlie Fletcher; New York: Hyperion, 2008. 400 pgs. Children's/Young Adult Fiction.

Often the second book in a trilogy is the weakest--not as exciting as the first, and having to set the table for the climax of the third. But this second volume in the Stoneheart trilogy is every bit as rip-snorting as the first, as George, Edie, and the Gunner soldier on in the unseen battle of London among the Spits, Taints, Glints, and most frighteningly of all the Walker and his Raven. George is separated from Edie early on when he is snatched up by a vengeful gargoyle. The rest of the action revolves around George and Edie trying to find The Gunner before "turn o' day," George frantically trying to meet the three challenges of The Hard Way, and Edie trying to escape the fate she has foreseen at the hands of The Walker. Although Ironhand is darker than the first volume, more frightening and sorrowful, the characters grow accordingly, as they meet stiffer challenges and their care for each other increases. Highly recommended.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Blue Heaven

BLUE HEAVEN; C. J. Box; New York: St. Martin's, 2007; 344pgs.; Fiction.

C. J. Box, whom we already love for his Joe Pickett mysteries, has outdone himself in this stand-alone thriller about a twelve-year-old girl and her brother on the run in the Idaho
woods after they witness a murder. Even when they think they have been rescued, Annie
and William discover treachery in a neighbor and escape again to hide in Jess Rawlins' barn.
Jess, a rancher clinging to his father and grandfather's land with the last of his dwindling
resources, takes the children in but then doesn't know how to protect them because the police investigation has been taken over by the murderers. Blue Heaven starts with a bang and
pushes forward with unremitting suspense until it reaches a bloody climax and a totally tender and astonishing ending. Bonuses include Box's evocation of the landscape of the Rockies,
and the creation of villains the Mountain West loves to hate: Californians and realtors (complete with purple polo shirts and tasseled loafers).


The Host

THE HOST: A NOVEL: Stephenie Meyer: Little, Brown and Co.: Sci-Fi: 619 pgs.

Earth has been invaded. An alien species who refer to themselves as "souls" invade the bodies of humans. They retain all of the memories of the person they have invaded, and after a short time they obtain total control of their host's mind.

Except for Wanderer. She has taken the body of Melanie Stryder, who refuses to fade away. Melanie's thoughts dwell on her love for Jared, a human who still lives in hiding. And as Wanderer discovers, possession of the body unites her with its desires: she yearns for a man she's never met. Wanderer and Melanie become unwilling allies, and they set off to search for the man they both love.

This has a little bit of everything, sci-fi, romance, suspense. Many people like this book more than Twilight because here, the romance is secondary to the main plot. The storyline is compelling, but it also has a deeper commentary on what it means to be human and how an individual is defined as much by their spirit as by their physical body. It’s hard to put down once you get going.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bringing Down the House


Well, the subtitle gives the plot away. Admittedly I was captivated. It's an amazing story and Mezrich does a fantastic job as he re-tells the Vegas coup.

If you're good, translate to 'genius', at math, you go to MIT. And at MIT a Blackjack Club had been formed. Just another school club? Not hardly. A professor at MIT, doing some average, statistical manipulations, found that the game Blackjack seemed to have statistically beatable odds. He ran the numbers and proved his theory. The club was formed. Then the 'club' took a more serious bent. These kids became almost manic about their math and their cards. And headed by a former math student and various behind the scenes "investors" the club managed to beat the Vegas casinos at their own game.

The book focuses one one specific group of club members. Kevin and his MIT buddies were an interesting--albeit profane--crew to get to know these past couple days. The book highlights how these super mathematical geniuses worked the system. Sin City was aptly portrayed and the book is peppered with showgirls, drugs, booze, and hard-core language. Sure Kevin was a genius and through specific training methods learned how to work the system. But they could only win at Blackjack where the statistical probability (and their mad skills) made it possible. His friends liked the rush, the high. They liked the idea of cheating an unnamed God in the Sky. And oh yeah, they loved the money. (They repeatedly mention that card-counting is not illegal and not prosecutable.) But every one of them wound up paying a price--too high for some. Is that a lifestyle you really want to gamble on...?

Read to find out what Kevin's reply was to Mezrich's final question. “If you had to choose now, would you do it all over?”


Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC'S LIFE: Steve Martin: Scribner (2007): Biography: 209 p.

In the mood for something funny? Try ‘Born Standing Up’ by Steve Martin--actor, comedian, and in his teenage beginnings, a magician. (Who knew?)

Comedians have it easy, right? They get paid to sit, ok “Stand” around a couple hours a night and tell jokes. Like that’s hard. Everyone laughs, AND they pay you money. It’s like a huge party where you’re the center of attention. Not to mention the millions of dollars comedians can make starring in movies.

Yet, what impressed me the most was how much Martin had to WORK as he spent hours and years and decades perfecting his comedy routine. He barely eked out a living for the first 10 years of his comedic life, was then hailed as the ‘funniest guy in the world’ made millions, and has now gradually left his stand-up comedy and movie career behind. ‘Knowing when to stand down’ being as much a trick of timing as knowing how to spin a joke.

Interesting to find out was Martin’s schooling in the fine arts: painting, classical music, and philosophy. A good read for those looking for: 1) an interesting biography 2) learning more about Martin’s quiet, personal life and 3) future comedians looking for a discerning how-to manual. And I appreciated the every-so-often lovely (and comedic) turn of phrase Martin uses as he writes.


Monday, May 19, 2008

The Post-American World

THE POST-AMERICAN WORLD; Fareed Zakaria; New York: Norton, 2008; 292pp.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, has written a fine, eminently sensible book about how the United States needs to adapt not to its own decline, but to what he calls "the rise of the rest." Taking nations such as China, India, and Brazil as models, he ably demonstrates how economic growth elsewhere need not spell disaster to the United States, and that we should abandon xenophobia, pride, and global bullying in our misguided efforts to hold a position in the world which it is not necessarily in our best interest to maintain. Zakaria's encyclopedic knowledge of economics and history, and his uncommon common sense make this a must-read
for anyone interested in global economics, politics, and nationalism, or in the future of the Republic. One would hope each of the Presidential hopefuls would take time to read this book.


The Hiding Place

THE HIDING PLACE: Corrie Ten Boom: Bantam Books: Biography: 241 pgs.

A classic holocaust memoir demonstrating the depths to which human nature can fall along with the resilience and power of the human spirit. Corrie tells of how her family became the center of Haarlem’s Nazi Resistance hiding and evacuating hundreds of Jews from the occupying armies. Eventually, the inevitable happens and many members of the family and network are captured and sent to various prisons and camps.

This is a beautifully told story of the effect individuals can have on the lives of others despite their circumstances. Although I was familiar with the story before reading the book, I had not realized the central role the family's strong Christian beliefs played into the events. The gratitude they felt toward their God throughout their trials and their continual desire to share their faith with others was truly inspiring.


The Darcy Connection

THE DARCY CONNECTION: Elizabeth Aston: Simon & Schuster: Fiction: 360 pgs.

I have to admit that I have enjoyed Elizabeth Aston's Pride & Prejudice spin-offs a little less with each addition to the series. However, I enjoyed her newest offering, The Darcy Connection, almost as much as I did the original, Mr. Darcy's Daughters. This installment follows the romantic adventures of Mr. Collins' two daughters the ever proper and pious Charlotte and the passionate and impulsive Eliza, named after her godmother Elizabeth Bennett Darcy.

While often predictable, any of the titles in this series are ideal for a quick summer read. Aston writes with humor and intelligence and cleverly weaves in entertaining cameos of characters you grew to love, or love to hate, in Pride & Prejudice.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Steve & Me

STEVE & ME: Terri Irwin: Simon Spotlight Entertainment: Biography: 273 pgs.

Few celebrities touched the world as Steve Irwin did, and here Terri Irwin gives us a personal look at the life of her husband. This book is jam-packed with stories of strange and wonderful animals, but the real surprise is the love story that is at the heart of it. When Terri, an American tourist in Australia, first laid eyes on Steve, she had to meet him. Later, he took Terri on the kind of date every girl dreams of - a canoe ride through the swamp at night. An unusual courtship, but a great love story.

I realized that this book isn’t just about paying homage to the wonderful man that Steve was, but it's also about continuing his message of wildlife conservation that he fought for every day of his life. It’s admirable: rather than dwell on his death and the loss that has come with it, she celebrates his life and his mission. This book was an adventure, a romance, and an inspiration.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride

AROUND THE WORLD ON TWO WHEELS: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride: Peter Zheutlin: Tantor Media:2007: Biography.

Annie Kopchovsky was an immigrant with three children barely managing to make a living in Boston in the 1890’s. Over a period of a few months in 1894 she transformed herself into Annie Londonderry and purportedly entered into a wager to be the first woman to ride around the world on a bike. She had never ridden a bike when she reinvented herself, shattering Victorian stereotypes. Was she pressured by finances, inspired by ideas about womens’ rights, an iconoclast with a flare for drama? Or was she an immensely resourceful and clever charlatan who took advantage of others to create for herself an opportunity for fame and fortune? In June, 1894 she left her husband and children and began her bike ride, earning money for her trip by wearing advertisements, giving bike demonstrations, and lecturing about her adventures. Make no mistake, what she did was very difficult, even though she probably only managed to bike about one quarter of the miles around the globe. En route she shocked communities with her modern biking costume and her independent ways.

The author is a descendant of Annie and has researched the times in order to tell her story. He has done a good job of portraying what life was like for a woman of that time as well. I thought the reader was a little dry when often the story seemed to demand wry! But I enjoyed this audio book in spite of the reader’s lack of a sense of humor.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: 1599: James Shapiro: HarperCollins: Biography: 394 pages

Plenty of biographies exist about William Shakespeare, but in his work Shapiro concentrates on a single year in the bard’s life. The author considers the social, personal, and political events that influenced Shakespeare’s writing in 1599, a year in which the Globe Theatre was constructed, England battled with Ireland, and Shakespeare produced Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. As much a critical analysis of the four plays written in 1599 as a biography of Shakespeare’s life and time, Shapiro’s book provides an in-depth look at a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s history.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Thing about Jane Spring

THE THING ABOUT JANE SPRING: Sharon Krum: Viking: Fiction: 315 pages

Jane Spring, a New York City assistant DA, was raised by a military father who stressed discipline, loyalty, and honor but left Jane without any training in the feminine arts, which may explain why she’s a disaster in the dating scene. Determined to change her luck in love, Jane adopts Doris Day as a role model and reinvents herself, complete with white gloves and yellow-walled apartment. While Jane’s extremes in personality, completely rigid and un-self-aware to purring kitten, are a little hard to swallow, this is a fun piece of chick lit with a unique plot device that sets it apart from other offerings in the genre.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

MUSEUM: BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: Danny Danziger: Viking: Nonfiction: 277 pages

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the second largest museum in the world and is run by a staff of over 2,000 employees. Danziger takes readers inside the museum with short interviews of 52 staff members. Consistently interesting and entertaining portraits of trustees, curators, security officers, a waitress, a member of the cleaning crew, and other personnel reveal a portrait of the museum that illuminates the collections and the diverse personalities that make up New York’s premier tourist attraction.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE: REDISCOVERING THE NEW WORLD; New York: Henry Holt, 2008; 408 pgs. (including the Notes on Sources, which you should read); Nonfiction.

Who could have guessed that history (and current events) could be so much fun. Horwitz, whose previous triumphs have included books about Civil War reenactments, travels in the Middle East, and a retracing of Captain Cook's voyages in the South Pacific, turns his gimlet eye on the first European forays into the New World. "Washing up" in Plymouth, Massachusetts one day on a New England road trip, he buys a beer at the Myles Standish Liquor store, beds down at the William Bradford inn, and then mocks (in his mind) the clueless tourists at Plymouth Rock. But as he mulls over his experience, he realizes how little (even as a history major) he knows about the origins of the land that became America. The rest, as they say, is history, and history of a most witty and enlightening kind. Who knew, for instance, that Juan Ponce de Leon came to Florida looking for gold and slaves like everyone else, and not for the Fountain of Youth? or that the man for whom the DeSoto touring car was named was a butcher of unequaled savagery? The first feast in the New World that might appropriately be called Thanksgiving took place in St. Augustine and probably consisted of a stew of salt pork and garbanzo beans.
(And there is some contention between Floridians and "the powdered wig" states over who should get credit for the national holiday.) A Voyage Long and Strange is a ball of laughs and a veil of tears--the offhand executions of women and children play out in the same text as deliberations upon whether moose is kosher and whether one should ride the "Trolley of the Doomed" in St. Tourist Trap, Florida. Horwitz goofs some stuff up--he thinks Mormons believe themselves to be descendants of the Nephites--but on the whole this is a fascinating, impossible-to-put-down look at where we came from and what we have become.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Montmorency: thief, liar, gentleman?

MONTMORENCY: THIEF, LIAR, GENTLEMAN?: Eleanor Updale: Orchard Book: Young Adult: 232 pgs.

Montmorency, a thief, mortality injured during his capture by the police, is saved by a young physician in exchange that he be released from prison on certain days to attend scientific lectures with the physician as an exhibit. While at these lectures Montmorency becomes determined that when he is released from prison he to will live a life like these men who attend- wealthy. Then one night attending the lectures, he discovers a way to make it happen using the new sewer system going in Victoria London .

Fast enjoyable read that will appeal to teen guys and adults. One of my favorites I have read this year.


A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

A WOLF AT THE TABLE: A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER: Augusten Burroughs: St. Martin's Press: Biography: 256 pages.

Another memoir from the author of Running with Scissors. I have really enjoyed all of Burroughs' books, he has a way of writing that is very powerful, and somehow unemotional in the telling of the often horrific events of his childhood. This story focuses on his father who was mostly left out of his other books. His father is portrayed as a strangely unemotional, uncaring and possibly sociopathic person who portrayed one normal face to the world, and another to his wife and child. If you enjoyed his other memoirs you should definitely read this one, you will not be disappointed.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Serving Teens Through Readers' Advisory

SERVING TEENS THROUGH READERS’ ADVISORY: Heather Booth: American Library Association: Nonfiction: 159 pages

As the teen specialist at Downers Grove Public Library, Booth brings together her experience working with an active readers'-advisory department as well as her knowledge of teen library patrons to cover all aspects of readers' advisory for teens. The first few chapters discuss teen reading habits and why readers' advisory for this group is different and also provide "Tips for the Generalist" who may not be an expert in teen fiction. Filled with excellent tips and great ideas, Serving Teens through Readers' Advisory makes an important contribution to readers'-advisory services and is essential reading for all readers' advisors and any library staff who work with teens.

This book is an excellent reader’s advisory resource. Although I read it mostly as research for a school paper, the author gives great suggestions for how to talk to teens about books. This book is recommended to librarians and teachers.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Rowing Without Oars

ROWING WITHOUT OARS: A Memoir of Living and Dying: Ulla-Carin Lindquist: Viking: Nonfiction: 197 pp.

Successful Swedish television newsreader Ulla-Carin Lindquist sought medical help for back pain, weakness in her hand and a new tendency to stumble. The previously fit and energetic fifty-year old mother of four was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The progressive and incurable neurological illness affects voluntary muscle action, eventually rendering paralysis and ultimately death.

Choosing “to make something worthwhile of the misfortune” and so that her young sons have something from her to read, comes this honest and poignant memoir. Her words, translated from Swedish, hold nothing back and draw in the reader, heart and soul.

She spends the brief time she has left in the company of those she loves often having difficult yet essential conversations. Birthdays and holidays pass with all knowing that it will be her last. Self-pitying never enters in. She savors each second. As her health deteriorates, she stoically gives up her autonomy and relies on family, friends and caretakers for the bare essentials of life: bathing, eating and toileting. She ends her journal with words her young son spoke to remind her that each moment counts. “Every second is a life.”


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Siege of Mecca

THE SIEGE OF MECCA: the Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Quaeda: Yaroslav Trofimov: Doubleday: Nonfiction: 301 pages

November, 1979 - I was living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Suddenly all the international telephone connections were cut and we heard rumors that many wounded Saudi soldiers were being brought to Riyadh hospitals because of a crisis in Mecca. Thirty years later this book reveals details of the violent seizure of the sacred mosque in Mecca at the height of Hadj which were impossible to learn at the time. The Saudis quashed news stories about the takeover of the mosque and downplayed the event. The CIA and the US Diplomatic Corp were focused on the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and saw the Mecca uprising as “the isolated act of a small group of religious fanatics.” The author, however, makes a plausible connection between this bloody event and subsequent Islamic fundamentalist movements including Al Qaeda.

The author’s extensive experience reporting from the Middle East are apparent from the many contacts he was able to make in order to gather the details for this book. For me the book was as gripping as any fiction thriller. If you are not familiar with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia you will need to study the map of the mosque he includes and give yourself extra time to absorb the political and religious background the author provides in the first chapters.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Belong to Me

BELONG TO ME: Marisa de los Santos: William Morrow: Fiction: 390 pages

Being childless is just one of many things that alienates Cornelia from her neighbors when she and her husband Teo move from the city to the suburbs. Piper Truitt, the reigning neighborhood socialite, confirms all of Cornelia’s fears about suburbia, criticizing Cornelia’s lifestyle, appearance, and conversation. It is only after Cornelia meets Lake, another new member of the community with a precocious teenage son, that Cornelia begins to feel welcome in her new town. Everyone has a secret, though, and relationships change and develop, demonstrating the multitude of ways in which the neighbors belong to one another. This is a beautiful book that is surprising in its depth and delightful in its characterization of complicated individuals and relationships.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith


Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley's daughter, Martha Beck, penned a volatile memoir that posits questions including the legitimacy of his work. Beck, a Harvard educated sociologist, author and life coach, weaves incidents from past and present into an account likely to comfort the disaffected and affront the faithful.

Her search for self, truth and faith is kindled by church censorship of courses at Brigham Young University where she and her husband taught.

She builds her narrative around a meeting she had with her elderly father and disturbingly intersperses their conversation with her daily routines, incongruent humor and ultimately her recalled memories of childhood ritualistic sexual abuse. Cathartic for her, or not, it pains the soul to read.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lock and Key

LOCK AND KEY: Sarah Dessen: Viking: Young Adult: 422 pages

When 17-year-old Ruby’s mother abandons her, she’s sent to live with the sister she hasn’t seen in 10 years and her sister’s wealthy husband. The transition from caring for herself in a rundown house to attending private school and becoming part of a functional family overwhelms Ruby and it takes a host of new people—including a popular neighbor boy, an eccentric jewelry artist, and a 12-year-old calculus prodigy—to help Ruby find a place in her new situation.

While this isn’t my favorite of her books, I consider Sarah Dessen to be among the best authors currently writing for young adults. She portrays contemporary teen issues in an enjoyable and relatable style, crafting complex characters who eventually find hope and direction in difficult circumstances. Without becoming heavy-handed or overly-sentimental, family and personal relationships are explored in this nicely-written high school tale. Drug use and occasional strong language do occur in the story.